Thursday, September 26, 2013


Exactly seven years ago today I crossed the border into Canada, completing my 5-month, 2,650-mile journey from the Mexican border on the Pacific Crest Trail. I had hiked from the parched deserts of southern California, carrying 7+ liters of water at a stretch, to the snowy 13,000+ ft passes of the Sierras, ice axe in hand. Through the baking canyons of northern California, around the glacier-clad volcanoes of Oregon and southern Washington, and deep into the remote forests of the northern Cascades. I had seen spring turn into summer turn into fall. I had hiked through endless sunny days, epic thunderstorms, blizzard-like snow, and seven days straight of rain. All my worldly possessions were boxed up and in storage. Forgotten. No mortgage, no job. The trail was my home. I carried everything I needed on my back. I hitched into countless towns to resupply. I made many good friends along the way. On the top of Mt. Whitney, I proposed. With a smile, she accepted. My hiking companion became my fiancee, became my wife.

I knew nothing of ultra-running at the time, despite intersecting many famous courses along the way (and wearing Montrail Hardrock shoes for almost the entire journey-- I had no idea what "Hardrock" referred to). Running was still many years in the future for me. Thru-hiking will always be my first love. There is no substitute for the deep sense of peace that comes from living so simply for so long. It takes about six weeks on the trail, I'd say, for a "vacation" to turn into a "way of life". Your mind empties and your cares slowly melt away. There's nothing else like it.

1,000+ miles on a single pair of Montrail Hardrocks.
Though I didn't really think of such things at the time, I often wonder how my fitness after a thru-hike would compare to my running fitness at peak training today. Though it's done at a much slower speed, thru-hiking numbers completely dwarf any ultrarunning training plan. I was regularly logging 150-mile weeks for months at a time. My monthly average was well over 500 miles/month. The total elevation gain for a northbound hike of the PCT is roughly 750,000 ft. That works out to an average of 150,000 ft of vertical per month. More than three times what I generally log during peak training now. I remember calculating that there was a two and a half month stretch-- from Tuolumne Meadows to the Canadian border-- where I averaged over a marathon a day. For two and a half months! Crazy. My training stats for Leadville seem laughable in comparison. Obviously, everything is done at a much slower pace. But hiking is all you do from sunrise to sunset. There are no competing responsibilities. My longest day on the PCT was 42.5 miles. A 30+ mile day was notable, and 25+ miles a day became the norm. We intentionally slowed down in the Sierras, in respect to the difficulty of the terrain and the gnarly early-season conditions, but also because it was just so damn beautiful. Why rush it? Recent FKTs on the JMT are impressive, and a worthy pursuit in their own limited way, but to me... they kind of miss the point. They merely scratch the surface of what is possible to experience in that terrain. Obviously though, quitting your job and carving out 5-6 months to simply "walk the earth" is often not a realistic option.

And so, when I returned to "real life", I eventually discovered ultrarunning. (I suppose with living in Leadville it was inevitable!) Running gets me out the door and into the mountains, while still allowing for a house, a job, and kids. (Barely!) I am grateful for that. In a way, running is more balanced, more integrated, and more sustainable than thru-hiking. You get a taste of the epic without having to completely disrupt your modern life.

Still... the Continental Divide Trail beckons. Completing the Triple Crown is near the top of my life's to-do list. Another long walk from Mexico to Canada, this time through the Rockies. Maybe once we're retired, and the kids are in college, my lovely hiking companion and I will shoulder our packs once again and head out on the trail to rediscover the beauty of simplicity; to rediscover ourselves. I can't wait.

Hope Pass is a walk in the park.

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